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Artwork by young people who are refugees and migrants, in The Children’s Society’s Birmingham office. Sketched hearts with “love” written in them.

Four Stories of Systems Change

I spent August — December 2019 working with The Children’s Society to prototype how they might operate differently to better achieve their strategy, which includes being systems-led. I have struggled with the academic nature of a lot of systems change writing. Like everyone, I’ve personally experienced broken systems, but I haven’t seen (or perhaps haven’t noticed) many examples of tangible systems change and how it was implemented. Until I worked with The Children’s Society.

Systems change is a small, experimental (but growing) part of The Children’s Society’s work, led by practitioners. What I heard during my user research with practitioners and policy teams: systems change is 5% post-its and 95% unglamorous hard graft. Systems change is sending 10 emails to the local authority until you find the person with the ability to make a policy change. It is justifying to your manager the time that you’re spending building relationships with organisations and groups (instead of with young people directly). It is managing yourself so you have the confidence to turn up to a meeting you’re not invited to and the resilience to keep going when you’re turned away. It is keeping a campaign alive for five years to change our national laws.

This isn’t a post about the theory or methods of systems change — there’s loads out there already and I’m very much still learning. This is a post that tells four stories of The Children’s Society’s systems change work, three local, one national, to bring systems change out of theory and into practice for a service and organisational design audience (of course, many practitioners, policymakers and systems designers have always practiced systems change).

“[System change is] both an outcome and a process by which we might create change… System change [as an outcome] is the emergence of a new pattern of organisation or system structure” — Anna Birney

Story 1: Preventing gang violence by re-designing bail conditions in Nottingham

Next Generation Nottingham is a new type of intensive support service for young people at risk of Criminal Sexual Exploitation or Criminal Child Exploitation. It could look like a caseworker spending six hours per day with a young person, supporting them to stay in school and nurture their interests. The service is well-designed with in-built flex — it doesn’t have KPIs around volume of “through-put” or (reduced) time spent with young people. Caseloads are low, a maximum of five young people per caseworker.

As well as 1:1 interventions, the team have also been experimenting with a systems change approach. For example, changing bail conditions in Nottingham to reduce the risk of violence. Imagine that a gang is criminally exploiting Kyle. Kyle is arrested and taken to St Anne’s police station. As part of his bail conditions, Kyle has to sign-in at St Anne’s every day at 5pm. However, St Anne’s is in a rival gang’s postcode. On the police station’s paper sign-in sheet at reception, a rival gang member can see that Kyle signs-in at 5pm every day — they know his time and location, putting Kyle in danger. One day, the rival gang member waits for Kyle to leave the police station after 5pm and starts a knife fight; Kyle is injured. Kyle’s gang pledges payback and the violence escalates.

Kyle’s is an imagined story based on repeated instances of violence resulting from bail conditions — poor service design and data policies that are creating serious unintended consequences in local systems. Next Generation Nottingham is beginning a project with police stations to better understand bail policies and prototype solutions to keep young people safe.

Story 2: Designing out gender biased referrals in Birmingham

As part of The Children’s Society’s groundbreaking Disrupting Exploitation programme, caseworkers have been prototyping systems change in partnership with local authorities. Through their 1:1 casework, the teams started noticing a pattern: potentially incorrect referrals for Child Sexual Exploitation and Child Criminal Exploitation, possibly due to gender stereotyping. For example, local authority social workers recently referred a boy to The Children’s Society service, describing him as experiencing Child Criminal Exploitation, when, based on the evidence, it was clear that the boy was experiencing Child Sexual Exploitation. The teams noticed a reverse pattern for girls, who were referred for Child Sexual Exploitation, even when it was obvious that they were experiencing Child Criminal Exploitation. Siloed exploitation pathways meant that social workers were missing the full picture of exploitation.

After months of persistently emailing, calling and turning up to meetings to find the right forum in the local authority to raise this issue, The Children’s Society caseworkers are now prototyping interventions with the local authority to reduce potential gender bias. For example, including non-gendered case studies in training to spark debate and trialling thought-provoking screensavers for local council staff making triage decisions about how to support young people.

Story 3: Disrupting the cycle of family fines for children not attending school in Birmingham

Caseworkers noticed a pattern across Disrupting Exploitation. Schools were too often adopting a policy of fining parents when their children skipped school (often due to Child Criminal Exploitation, for example, involvement in gangs). The policy was intended as a deterrent, a way of “incentivising” parents to “keep” their children in school. However, the opposite often happened. The fines pushed families further into financial struggle, causing difficulties at home, pushing children further into Child Criminal Exploitation, which had the effect of increasing instances of children not attending school. One caseworker in Birmingham worked tirelessly to find the right people in the council to raise the problem with. Together, they are planning to create resources to educate Birmingham schools about the cyclical relationship between fines and pushing families further away from services. They are also working on a resource to help parents understand their rights to challenge the fines, in the hope that this will lead to schools choosing not to fine parents when their child is missing school due to exploitation.

Story 4: Changing national legal aid policy for unaccompanied refugees and migrants

In 2018, the Government re-instated legal aid for separated and unaccompanied children in their non-asylum immigration cases, across the UK. This followed The Children’s Society’s five year Legal Aid campaign, since 2013, when the Government stopped separated and unaccompanied young people from being able to access legal aid to support with immigration issues. At the time, the Government estimated that 2,500 vulnerable migrant children, alone in the UK, would be prevented from accessing aid every year.

“Without support to secure their immigration status, young people face destitution, social exclusion and exploitation. Often young people only realise their status as they approach adulthood and find they can’t access services such as healthcare or education. Now, with support to navigate the complex immigration system, their chances of fairly resolving their immigration status will improve. Young people will finally have the security and hope for the future that they deserve. Being able to look forward to a brighter future is vital for young people’s mental health and well-being” — The Children’s Society

Thanks to Lucy, Gemma and Clare for their editing support! To understand more about The Children’s Society’s systems change work, check out:

Written by

Designer. I help social impact organisations become more adaptive and human-centred. Associate at Shift www.shiftdesign.org.uk. Formerly @FutureGov

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